Since he began his meteoric rise in the thoroughbred business, Wayne Lukas has been the trainer everybody loves to hate.
Many rival horsemen have looked at him with a contempt that is surely mixed with jealousy. Neutral observers say that the reason he annually leads the nation in purse winnings is that he has more good horses and more money behind him than anybody else.
Even though Lukas, in the space of a decade, has shattered records that Woody Stephens and Charlie Whittingham needed more than 50 years to compile, his name is rarely mentioned in the same breath with those icons of his profession. Although Lukas obviously is a savvy businessman, he rarely is extolled as a great horseman.
The reason is that he often has seemed obsessed by getting fast, immediate results with young horses -- and burning them out in the process. He pushed such ill-prepared horses as Capote and Houston into the Kentucky Derby and they were never the same afterward. The three horses he won Triple Crown events with -- Codex, Tank's Prospect and Winning Colors -- never won a race of consequence thereafter. His colorbearers were often finished at a stage of their careers when Whittingham horses were just beginning to develop and mature.
For those of us who have cited this argument as the principal indictment of Lukas's training skills, the identities of America's leading racehorses of 1990 come as a bit of a surprise. The top-ranked horse is Criminal Type, who has just begun to blossom at age 5 and has won four straight Grade I stakes. The top turf horse is Steinlen, who earned the Eclipse Award last year and is going strong at age 7. Both are trained by Lukas.
It may be time for his detractors to reevaluate Wayne Lukas. Has he changed and matured as a trainer?
He says no: "I don't think we've made any changes; this is the same program we've always had. I just think we're wearing down the critics. The most difficult thing to do in horse racing is to be consistent. This game is full of guys who have up years and down years. We've been consistent for nine years." Indeed, this will be the eighth straight year in which his stable has led the nation in winnings.
What has changed during that period, he said, is the type of results he has sought. It was no accident that he made his first success with precocious 2-year-olds; the Steinlens came later.
"When you don't have an established program, and you get new players, you have to show them some action," he said. "They can say over and over again, 'I'm a patient person, I want to build a program,' but that's baloney. You couldn't tell Gene Klein that you wanted to buy some grass horses that would be good when they were 3 or 4. He wanted action!"
Now that he has established himself and built ongoing programs with his big clients, Lukas said, he can afford to take his time. He is waiting later and later to turn loose his best prospects; he's taking a longer view. He still seems to succumb to impatience and wishful thinking at the time of the Kentucky Derby, but otherwise, his image as a trainer obsessed with instant results is passe.
Indeed, he is proving that his great strength is his long-range vision. He entered the thoroughbred game with a concept of an operation -- he is always talking about "our program" -- which challenged the traditional notions of training. His critics could focus on his more blatant mistakes (the Capotes, the Houstons) and use them to deride the whole concept. But as these criticisms fade, it is becoming increasingly clear that Lukas's "program" has revolutionized his profession.
Of course, it is hardly revolutionary for a trainer to cultivate large numbers of wealthy owners and assemble large numbers of high-class horses. But every American trainer who has done so in the past has run a regional business. Woody Stephens is a New York trainer. Charlie Whittingham is a California trainer. They would, of course, ship their horses out of town for major stakes, but they had a single base of operations. They are limiting their opportunities in an era when money-making opportunities for good thoroughbreds have proliferated.
Lukas's management of Criminal Type typifies the national scope of his program. Criminal Type spent the winter in California for the rich stakes races there, then went to Arkansas, Maryland and New York for major stakes before returning to California for a $1 million race. He has earned more than $2.2 million in these travels. Now he is in New York for the rest of the year, aiming for the prestigious fall stakes and the Breeders' Cup.
Lukas can shuttle his horses around the country because he has bases of operation at several racetracks, with an assistant trainer in each -- an idea which appalls traditionalists. A true horseman is one who scrutinizes his animals every day, watches them gallop, feels their legs and ankles, watches how they eat and bases his handling of them on such nuances.
Legendary Hall-of-Famer Allen Jerkens once said that he could tell a lot by rubbing a comb over a horse's back and watching the way the hair came out. That's a horseman -- not somebody who talks on the telephone with a battery of assistants.
But Lukas has thrived by establishing and supervising far-flung divisions of his stable. "I think the absolute key to doing this is quality control," he said. "You cannot ever see a deviation of quality from one division to the other. The barns are the same. The feeding program is the same. There are a lot of young assistants in this business who think they have a better way of doing things, but the people who last in this operation are ones who have blind faith -- and a high intensity level.
"This is what makes it easy to ship horses around the country. Most horses, when they ship, have to adjust. There's never an adjustment necessary in our divisions. It's the McDonald's principle. We'll give you a franchise, and that franchise is going to be the same wherever you go."
There was a time when most people in the horse industry would have hooted at the concept of the McStable. His record -- $105 million in earnings -- has answered his detractors, and as surely as McDonald's revolutionized the hamburger business, Lukas has redefined the training profession.